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Overheard in GenForum: Looking for Citizenship Records
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

March 01, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I am looking for information about citizenship records. If someone came to the U.S. in 1897 and landed in N.Y. How long after 1897, could they apply for citizenship. Could they live in the U.S. until 1917 and not become a citizen? Where would I search for these records, and what information would be on them? -- Edith

A: Citizenship, or the naturalization process, took a few years to complete. The number of years depends on the time period in which the immigrant began the process.

There are other records, such as the census, that can help you learn when, and if, an immigrant began or completed the naturalization process. These records help to narrow the years that you will need to search.

The Naturalization process changed through the years.

Were They Citizens?

If an ancestor was living when the 1900, 1910 or 1920 census was taken, then the census should be the first place you begin your citizenship search. All three of these censuses included questions pertaining to citizenship.

Among the questions asked were:

  • Date of immigration
  • Number of years living in the United States
  • Where the person was in the naturalization process
  • Whether or not naturalized
  • Year of naturalization

Not all of these questions we asked all the time. However, the questions that were asked will assist you in determining if an ancestor was a naturalized citizen, if they were still completing the naturalization process, or if they were maintaining their alien status.

Understanding the Requirements

The first naturalization act was passed in 1790. The act of 1795 required a total of five years of residency to complete the naturalization process. A person could not apply for the declaration of intent (the first step) until they had been living in the United States for two years. The petition for naturalization could be filed three years after the declaration.

In 1798, the requirements for residency were extended. An immigrant was required to reside in the United States for fourteen years. The declaration of intent was to be filed five years before citizenship. In 1802, the Act of 1798 was repealed as too strict, with the requirements reverting back to a residency requirement of five years.

It would not be until 1906 that major changes would apply to the naturalization process. The biggest change in 1906 was the establishment of the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization in Washington. It was created to provide uniform rules to the naturalization process. You ancestor may have applied under the earlier 1802 rules or under the rules of 1906.

Finding the Records

If your ancestor was naturalized before 1906, the records are likely to be located in the county records. To research these records, you will need to determine where your ancestor was living from 1897 until the year of naturalization. At the very earliest, your ancestor could have applied for the declaration of intent in 1900, and gained citizenship in 1902. Again, the census records would help you here.

If your ancestor attained naturalization status after 1906, then you can find the records at the Immigration and Naturalization Services under federal control. To request a copy of a file, you will need to contact:

Immigration and Naturalization Service
Department of Justice
425 I Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20536

You can also find out more information by visiting the INS web site.

In Conclusion

Many of the immigrants who came to the United States went through the naturalization process. It is possible though that your ancestor could have lived here all his life and still not become naturalized. You may want to learn more by taking the immigrant lessons, that are available online through

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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